Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

They Said It:

The desire of being believed, the desire of persuading, of leading, and directing other people, seems to be one of the strongest of all our natural desires. It is, perhaps, the instinct upon which is founded the faculty of speech, the characteristical faculty of human nature. No other animal possesses this faculty, and we cannot discover in any other animal any desire to lead and direct the judgment and conduct of it fellows. Great ambition, the desire of real superiority, of leading and directing, seems to be altogether peculiar to man, and speech is the great instrument of ambition, of real superiority, of leading and directing the judgments and conduct of other people.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759.



Nearly a quarter century ago, Bill and Hillary Clinton bestowed a welcome gift on the two of us, who were at the time trying to eke out a living writing a weekly article for investors about the day to day activities of the denizens of Washington.  This was a nice job, but the subject matter was often quite boring.  We yearned to address the broader, more human elements of political science.  But there wasn’t much to go on.  And then, suddenly, into our world came the priapic Bill and the ever angry Hill with their entourage of fascinating Mayberry-meets-the-Godfather crooks, shysters, sharpies, and other degenerates.  And they not only provided us with some fun, but with a central theme of sorts that allowed us to address a great many issues that didn’t lend themselves to ordinary political discourse.

Today, at least for the time being, we have the Donald.  He’s not as much fun, of course.  But, like Bill and Hillary, he provides us with a vehicle for discussing issues beyond the day-to-day drudgery of day-to-day politics.  Hence, another story ostensibly about Donald Trump.  What you’ll notice, we feel certain, is that Trump is not necessarily the cause or the motive of the story.  He is, rather, merely the pretext for the story, the man who, by virtue of his suck-the-oxygen-out-of-every-room personality, has enabled us to discuss some of the broader and more important themes of the day, without having to concoct an explanation for their relevance.  We’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Now, the members of the mainstream press and the partisan political establishments have been struggling to explain the Trump phenomenon.  This is made all the more difficult, of course, by the fact that none of them has even the vaguest idea what ordinary voters might see in the guy.

Predictably, many have compared him to Hitler, declaring that what he wants to do to illegal immigrants in this country is tantamount to the Holocaust.  Others, wishing to seem slightly more subtle but nonetheless enamored by the fascist tag, compare him to Mussolini.  And still others, who just can’t help themselves, insist that Trump could be either . . . or both . . . and whatever he is, it’s dangerous.  Consider, for example, the following from someone called Conor Lynch, writing for the perpetually hysterical webzine Salon:

In a recent article by Jeffrey Tucker, however, it is argued, quite justly in my opinion, that Donald Trump, whether he knows it or not, is a fascist (or is at least acting like one).  Much like Mussolini and Hitler, Trump is a demagogue dedicated to riling up the people (particularly conservatives) with race baiting, traditionalism and strongman tough talk — and, according to polls, it’s working — for now.  Tucker writes:

“Trump has tapped into it, absorbing unto his own political ambitions every conceivable resentment (race, class, sex, religion, economic) and promising a new order of things under his mighty hand.”

All of this is overwrought and tiresome, especially in light of the fact that the real economic nationalist in this race – the national socialist, if you will – is the guy on the far, far Left, Vermont’s own junior Senator and the current Democratic frontrunner in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders.  Worse than overwrought, though, these comparisons are just dumb.  In order for such analogies to make any sense at all, one has to believe that a large portion of the country is not just overtly and angrily racist, but willing to do just about anything to satiate their appetite for racial vengeance.  Intellectual and wannabe intellectual leftists may believe such things to be true, but those of us who live in the real world know better.

Moreover, in order to believe that Trump’s economic and immigration positions are equivalent to fascism, one must deny two obvious facts.  First, one must ignore the striking similarities between Trump’s ideal economic world and that of both the hardcore Left and the slightly-less-than-hardcore Left that controls the White House today.  Trump is against free trade; he is against the free movement of people and capital; he is in favor of collusion between Big Business and Big Government; and in all of these, he is largely indistinguishable in policy and rhetoric from most of the contemporary Left.  In order to remain a viable candidate – her legal troubles notwithstanding – even Hillary Clinton has been forced to move radically leftward and to disown most of her husband’s presidential legacy.  And one would be hard-pressed to distinguish most of her economic policy positions from either Sanders’ or Trump’s.  Economic nationalism and pseudo-populism rule the day.

Second, in order to believe that Trump is Hitler or Mussolini reborn, one must ignore the simple fact that the immigration problem that he has made his signature issue is both real and GLOBAL.  Indeed, compared to most of the leaders of the developed world these days, Trump seems positively laissez-faire when it comes to immigration.  Now, this could be a case of Thomas Wolfe’s old adage “that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”  Or it could be that the desire to control one’s own borders is not fascist at all; that the current economic dislocation extant in the developing world has created a human immigrant tide nearly unprecedented in its magnitude; and that everyone, all across the West, is having to deal with the repercussions in an ad hoc and largely ungainly fashion.

Either way, Trump is hardly a fascist.  Or, at least if he is, he is no more so than Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or a host of European democratic socialists whom the folks at Salon otherwise love unrequitedly.

That’s not to say that there is no historical precedent for Trump.  In fact, there are several.  It’s just that the Nazi/fascist bit is as old and tired as the Democratic presidential field.  And nearly as irrelevant.

If one must pursue the somewhat silly task of finding a highly notable historic character with whom to compare our own Donald Trump, we would choose Napoleon Bonaparte.  Not, we should say, in his role as a military leader, but as a political phenomenon, as a reaction to the pathologies of his age.

Let us explain.

For starters, as any schoolboy knows, Donald Trump, like Napoleon, is defined principally by his ambition and his unencumbered quest for power and glory.  David Jordan wrote this about the “le petit caporal” in Napoleon and the Revolution:  “For all his enemies, his ambition was untampered by devotion to some higher cause.  He was unconstrained by God, civilization, or historical habit.”

Trump is not shy about his accomplishments or his vast wealth.  Indeed, he makes a ridiculous production of both.  One could visit a handful of the largest and wealthiest cities in the country and have pictures taken next to gigantic buildings, colosseums, and various other sites bearing and blaring his name to the adoring millions.  MY building.  MY apartments.  MY casinos.  Look at them at behold my magnificence.  And then let me tell you about my magnificence.  Over and over and over . . . and over . . . Jordon says this of Napoleon:  He “transformed himself into a king of the old race who attributed everything to himself . . . his egotism was ferocious.”

More to the point, Trump like Napoleon, is a creature of his times, a man shaped by the slow but unambiguous corruption of the American dream and the American people’s concomitant declining respect for the institutions of the republic.  If Trump had not existed, he would have to have been invented.  Likewise Napoleon, about whom Jordan writes:  “Napoleon was a child of the Revolution, his career is unimaginable without the greatest upheaval of the age. . .  His deeds could be driven or inspired by no honorable motives.  Only the raw emotional force of egomania unbound could explain the man.”

And here we come to the crux of the comparison.  Napoleon was the eminently predictable end state of the French Revolution, the strongman whose presence was both facilitated and necessitated by the horror, corruption, chaos, and bloodlust of that event.  Overwhelmed by the Revolution, French society simply could not manage its affairs and, in the end, needed a “popular general” to right the proverbial ship.  The incomparable Edmund Burke put it this way as a watched from afar as French society began to descend into chaos.

In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself.  Armies will obey him on his personal account.  There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things.  But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.

You see, when Burke wrote those words, the French had just begun their Revolution and had absolutely no idea whatsoever where it would end.  They had stormed the Bastille.  They had abolished feudalism.  They had written and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  They had undermined the Church, with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.  They reined in their king.  In short, they had destroyed what came before – the Ancien Regime – but had replaced it with nothing coherent and certainly nothing that, in way, resembled the ideals they professed to embrace.

The irony is that Burke wrote those words before things actually got really bad: before the constitution and the flight of the royals; before the National Assembly; before the rise of the Committee for the Public Safety and the Jacobins; before the Reign of Terror.  What this means, then, is that Burke’s reaction, his prediction about the “popular general,” the strongman who would become “master” of the country, was not based on the blood and gore of the Reign of Terror or the counterrevolution against Robespierre and his ilk, but on the simple fact that the radical destabilization of established procedures, established customs, and established rights, without consideration of the consequences, would lead to anarchy in the short run and authoritarianism in the long run.  When he wrote, Burke did not know how bad the Revolution would become.  He knew only that the de facto abolition of tradition would breed chaos and move the people to cry out for a restoration of order, whatever the cost.

In terms of the analogy between Trump and Napoleon, therefore, one needn’t expect that the “popular general” will ride in on his white horse only after mass slaughter and rampant radicalism.  It’s enough for him to promise to ride to the rescue merely after a period of disorder and the destabilization of traditional power relationships.

When folks like the aforementioned Conor Lynch compare Trump to Hitler, they’re comparing him to one of history’s greatest monsters and one of history’s rarest events, the quasi-religious conquest of an entire nation and the suspension of moral criteria and consciences for more than a decade.  All of which is to say that such comparisons are absurd.

When we compare Trump to Napoleon, by contrast, we are not necessarily comparing him to the historical Napoleon, except in terms of their egos and ambition.  Rather, we are comparing Trump to the Burkean conception of Napoleon, a conception that has more to do with the state of affairs extant in the country – the disorder and the destabilization of traditional power relationships – than with the actual strongman who emerged to stabilize society.

Last week, we noted that the current administration has radically altered the nature of the relationship between the state and its citizens.  “You take the three laws detailed above,” [the early fiscal stimulus, health care reform, and the Dodd-Frank financial services reform bill] “and add in the health care law’s contraception mandate, the new regulations on energy production, and the executive actions on immigration, and you have a radical overhaul of the United States government in six years that has been enacted and implement in contravention of the wishes of a majority of the nation’s people.”  This is the very definition of disorder and destabilization.  The nation has been “transformed” – or turned upside down, depending on your perspective.  But that’s only the beginning of it.

We have spent the better part of the last two decades arguing that size and scope of government combined with the post-Progressive reliance on a disengaged and ever-expanding bureaucratic apparatus has created a nation that is something considerably less republican than it once was.  To borrow some terms from the eminent political scientist Theodore Lowi, the administrative state has ended classical liberalism in the United States and perverted its citizens’ notions of good government.  Many of the stories that we have thought most important in these last twenty years are the inescapable results of the rise of the administrative state and its proclivity to foster government that is of the powerful, by the powerful, and for the powerful.  Or as we put it this past April:

Over the past several years, we’ve written about big government.  We’ve written about the bureaucratic state and its perversions of the ends and means of liberal democracy.  We’ve written about the Gnostic nature of big government and its advocates.  We’ve written about the ruling class and its disdain for the country class.  We’ve written about the nation’s swift and irreversible slide into Corporatism.  We’ve written about the “war over resources.”  We’ve written about the “new political paradigm” and the “new feudalism.”  We’ve written about political corruption, political opportunism, and political pretentiousness.  And every single one of these stories is connected to all of the others and to a broader political ethos that has turned this onetime republic into a low and oppressive oligarchy.  Every single one of these stories is an indictment of the American political class and of its abuse of power.  Every single one of these stories explains why we’ve been so pessimistic of late about the future of the American political system.

Every single one of these stories also explains why Donald Trump has convinced so many people that he is all set to mount his Marengo and ride to the nation’s rescue.

Consider the following.

Last week, as you may have noticed, the product-testing agency Consumer Reports shocked the automotive world by announcing that it had discovered the near-perfect automobile, one that “broke” its longstanding, well-respected, and influential car ratings.  The story not only moved markets, but awakened the interest of all sorts of enthusiasts, from car lovers to environmentalists to fans sophisticated American engineering.  As it turns out, though, the story also explains in clear detail just how broken the American republic is, just how the administrative state has rigged the game in favor of the rich and powerful, and just why so many people therefore think that disorder and instability reign, while the once great American republic has devolved into a hollow husk of its former self.  CNBC provides the background:

Tesla just made Consumer Reports history.

The product testing agency on Thursday gave the new, high-performance P85D version of the automaker’s Model S a rating of 100 — a perfect score — calling it “the best-performing car that Consumer Reports has ever tested.”

“It really blew up our system,” said Jake Fisher, the head of automotive testing for Consumer Reports.  “It actually scored above 100 in our system before we had to make some changes to account for this car.”

Initially, the P85D Model S scored 103 points when Consumer Reports measured the car’s acceleration, braking, handling and other key performance characteristics. Fisher and his team then modified their scoring model to make the P85D fit into a 100-point scale.

Sounds like a great story, right?  We have a truly innovative and bold entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who took some chances, invested a great deal of his own money in a unique car, succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and has now turned even the traditional private consumer protection group into believers in his dream.  That’s the American Dream personified, yes?

Well . . . no.

It is probably no exaggeration to call Elon Musk a visionary, as the conservative author and publisher Roger Kimball recently did.  But then it is also no exaggeration to note that Musk’s vision, as powerful and compelling as it is, has come to depend in large part on the administrative state and its own powerful vision.  The Los Angeles Times recently explained how and why that’s the case:

Los Angeles entrepreneur Elon Musk has built a multibillion-dollar fortune running companies that make electric cars, sell solar panels and launch rockets into space.  And he’s built those companies with the help of billions in government subsidies.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times.  The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups. . . . Musk and his companies’ investors enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost.

The payoff for the public would come in the form of major pollution reductions, but only if solar panels and electric cars break through as viable mass-market products.  For now, both remain niche products for mostly well-heeled customers.

In another recent piece, George Koopman, a researcher at George Mason’s free-market Mercatus Center, explained just how all of this works with respect to Tesla Motors:

Tesla’s success is ultimately a case study in the perils of government-granted privilege, its financial success demonstrating a reliance on political favoritism more than an ability to create value for customers.  Tesla Motors would not have been created were it not for the generosity of politicians – if generosity is the right term for spending taxpayers’ money.

The company began with a loan funded through the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, which was signed into law by President Bush; the loan was later awarded after President Obama took office.  In Tesla’s press release announcing that it had paid back this low-interest loan, the company was careful to thank all of those who made it possible, including “the Department of Energy and the members of Congress and their staffs that worked hard to create the ATVM program.”

Along with the federal loan, Tesla also relies on support from politicians through a complex series of federal and state subsidies.  For each purchase of a new Tesla acquired for personal use, the federal government offers a $7,500 federal tax credit. In addition, various states offer additional income-tax credits, including $6,000 in Colorado and $7,500 in West Virginia.

These subsidies have become so central to Tesla’s business model that it advertises them to customers as a way to cover the cost of a down payment.  And for states that do not yet offer subsidies for electric cars?  Tesla’s website provides links to help consumers encourage state and local legislators to subsidize the purchase of such vehicles.  The company’s site even goes so far as to recommend consulting a tax professional.

Even with the support of federal and state politicians, Tesla would still be reporting losses were it not for its ability to profit off of other auto manufacturers in California.  In the first quarter of 2013, Tesla reported its first-ever quarterly profit by using special credits from California’s Air Resources Board, which rewards auto manufacturers for the production of “zero-emission” vehicles.  So far this year, Tesla was able to turn what would have been a $57 million loss into an $11 million gain by selling $68 million worth of these credits to other auto manufacturers in California.

If that’s the American Dream personified, then the 21st Century version of that dream bears no resemblance whatsoever to previous iterations.  We note here that the near-perfect car reviewed by Consumer Reports starts at $130,000 – which is to say that it is a car produced by a very rich man using taxpayer money and is generally purchased by very rich men using taxpayer money.

Now think about what this means:  The government – which is to say the state and federal bureaucracies – decided, without any input from actual constituents, that it wanted a lower emission, electric-powered car.  And so it entered into a series of arrangements with a manufacturer to produce this car and with wealthy consumers to purchase this car, all without anyone anywhere ever taking a legislative vote on the matter or submitting the idea to taxpayers.  The administrative state simply decided, and the rich and powerful profited.  This is, at its core, corporatism, which people like Conor Lynch and his colleagues at Salon might be surprised to learn, was a significant component of the economic platform of actual, real-life fascism.  Funny that.

To make matters worse, it’s not even entirely clear that this car, which broke the ratings chart, is actually as wonderful as its been made out to be.  Writing in his weekend Wall Street Journal column, Holman Jenkins suggests that Consumer Reports was anything but an impartial observer in the case of the Tesla Model S.  To wit:

If, with their own money, Tesla and its customers want to revel in electric cars, that’s wonderful.  Nobody should object.  But why should taxpayers subsidize their hobby as if some vital public purpose is being served?  And why should Consumer Reports prostitute itself in its latest review of the Tesla Model S P85D, calling it basically the best car ever, with a higher-than-possible rating of 103?

Prostitute is not too strong a word.  Consumer Reports does not give away its content for free.  It makes money not from advertising but from its reputation for systematic, unbiased product reviews, which it expects customers to pay for (and Tesla shoppers can certainly afford to pay).

Not this time: “The Ratings of this ground-breaking vehicle are too good to keep to ourselves so we’re sharing them with all our visitors,” says the online version. . . .

CR is shilling not only for the car but the government policies that subsidize it.  Or as CR’s auto testing chief Jake Fisher says in an accompanying video, “At Consumer Reports, we believe improving fuel efficiency is a vital initiative.”

Unfortunately, one product that doesn’t get CR’s withering eye is the public policy of shoveling taxpayer handouts at Tesla, which any close examination would quickly conclude is a case of costs without benefits. . . .

Let’s postulate something else: A traditionally scrupulous CR review—even while praising the car’s features—might well give any Tesla vehicle an “unacceptable” rating simply because it takes at least five hours to recharge except at one of Tesla’s own supercharger stations (where it still takes 30 minutes). . . .

All vehicles come with trade-offs.  Some of the vehicles we love most come with quirks that would likely earn them a low rating in a traditionally scrupulous CR review.  It’s the taxpayer subsidies that are unjustified, as is CR’s decision to throw away its reputation to propagandize for a public policy that it doesn’t subject to any serious analysis.

What this leaves us with, then, is a “republic” which its founders would hardly recognize.  Government agencies, without sanction from the people or their elected representatives, decide to spend the people’s money on their own pet projects, to underwrite the nominally private production of these projects, and to subsidize their entirely private consumption.  The allegedly free press joins this unelected and largely unaccountable government administrative apparatus in praising these pet projects, not because they are necessarily praiseworthy, but because the press has a vested ideological interest in the project and thus is willing therefore to collude with the administrative state and corporatist business entities in persuading the heretofore disregarded electorate that financing fancy consumer goods for rich people is really in its best interests.  This is a far cry from the Reign of Terror, we’ll grant you.  But it’s not exactly a democratic republic either.

Given all of this, is it any wonder that some of the common people feel that they’ve been had?  Moreover, is it any wonder that so many want a strongman, a “popular general” to put an end to all of this?

Last week, Donald Devine, one of the campaign strategists who helped Ronald Reagan win the White House and usher in “Morning in America,” penned a piece warning that Donald Trump was a bad solution to the country’s problems.  He put it this way:

As the late great political scientist Aaron Wildavsky taught us years ago there are four fundamental political types: egalitarians, individualists, social conservatives, and — the ones we forget about — what he called “fatalists.”

We tend to forget the fatalists because they tend not to vote.  They view the world as foreign, chaotic, ephemeral, dangerous, on the edge of falling into bedlam.  He used the analogy that their world is like a marble rolling unsteadily on a glass surface, rolling and pitching who knows where.  Government has some control but is run by an untouchable, all-powerful elite acting in its own interest.  Such a world can only be tamed by something enormously powerful and masterful, and only during a crisis.  Then a strong central government supported by angry, patriotic nationalists and led by a popular Napoleon on his white horse can arrest the anarchy.  Trump’s autobiography is titled Think Big and Kick Ass.

[Patrick] Buchanan tapped into the same world — although with vastly more intellect and subtlety — but he learned Wildavsky’s lesson.  Fatalists do not vote, except perhaps enough to win a primary or two, and the elite strike back hard.  It is difficult to sustain the anger, although Buchanan came closer than many remember.  Trump may turn out to be more fortunate since popular resentment has risen to a boil this time.  Bernie Sanders taps into it too, and when fatalists do vote they might go for either party.  But the Vermont socialist has no horse; Trump has billions and the celebrity, willingness, and audacity to ride them.

Pollster Frank Luntz came reeling out of one of his distinctive focus groups the other day crying “my legs are shaking” from seeing the depth of commitment of the Trump supporters he interviewed at the session.  “I want to put the Republican leadership behind this mirror and let them see.  They need to wake up.  They don’t realize how the grassroots have abandoned them.  Donald Trump is punishment to a Republican elite that wasn’t listening to their grassroots.”  He even showed the audience unflattering images of and statements by Trump meant to turn them off.  It did not work.  At the end they were more committed than at the beginning.

There is, as far as we can tell, nothing wrong with Devine’s analysis.  In fact, we suspect it’s pretty spot on.  And as you may have guessed, Devine’s piece convinced us to reconsider the Napoleon analogy we pondered earlier this summer but discarded.

Our problem, rather, is with Aaron Wildavsky or, more accurately, with his conclusions.  We like the individualists and the social conservatives well enough, but neither group is going to restore the republic.  Neither of these groups is going to fight against the efforts by the administrative state and corporatist monstrosity to usurp power from the people and destabilize society.  In Wildavsky’s analysis, there are only four categories, and none of them is comprised of what might be called “institutional conservatives,” men and women dedicated to the conservation of the institutions of the republic.  And even if this category existed or could somehow be constructed, its members would be so few as to be of no use against the entrenched ruling class.

Allow us to make a prediction:  Donald Trump will not be Napoleon.  Even if elected, he will not restore order.  He is not Burke’s popular general.  Burke’s general does not yet exist or is at least not yet known to us.  And this suggests, given the historical precedent, that things are about to go from bad to worse.  In the Burkean analogy, we’re still mixed up in the comparatively tame disorder of 1790.  We still have our Jacobins and our Reign of Terror in front of us.

Unless or until the ruling class is compelled to relinquish its ill-gotten power and return it to the institutions of the republic – the institutions of the people, by the people, and for the people – then calamity, division, and disorder will simply proliferate.  We’re not fatalists.  Far from it in fact.  Yet we do see the nation on the edge of bedlam.  At some point in the nation’s future, then, there will be a man on a white horse.  We can only hope that he is not merely strong, but honest as well and that he sees his task as restoring not merely order, but the constitutional order.

Bismarck supposedly declared that “God has a providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”  We can only hope he was right.


Copyright 2015. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.